US tobacco firm presses hard to open overseas markets to snuff
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Chambers pointed to the ``intended introduction'' of Skoal Bandits as one of the principal reasons for Hong Kong's ban.Skip to next paragraph
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A US Tobacco spokesman denies that the firm targets teens, saying the ``target market for smokeless tobacco products are adult males 18 years old and older.'' He admits ``a lot of high-school-age youngsters'' in some states are buying it despite laws against sale to minors.
US Tobacco began lobbying to derail the proposed Hong Kong ban sometime last summer. The date is in dispute, because there are different versions of a crucial meeting between a US consulate representative in Hong Kong and Wilfred Tsui, Hong Kong's principal assistant secretary for health and welfare. Mr. Tsui says they met in June and that the consulate representative asked him several medical questions, said he was aware of conflicting scientific health evidence, and asked about steps to appeal the ban. Mr. Tsui called the inquiry ``legitimate and normal.''
A second and conflicting version was learned about by Dr. Gregory Connolly, director of the office for nonsmoking and health of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Dr. Connolly was responsible for that state being the first in the nation to require health warning labels for smokeless tobacco and ban its sale to those under 18. He was consulted by Hong Kong as an international authority on the hazards of smokeless tobacco.
According to Connolly's information, the meeting was held on Aug. 13 between Tsui and a US consulate representative, who requested the names of people, including the US surgeon general, with whom the Hong Kong government had been in touch and any documents or communications from them. Reportedly, the US consulate representative also asked why Hong Kong was treating this product differently from other tobacco products (which might be construed as trade discrimination) and whether Hong Kong was aware of conflicting scientific evidence on the health effects of smokeless tobacco.
In Washington, a State Department spokesman said the US consulate staff had made it clear to Hong Kong officials that ``the US government does not take a position on the proposed legislation [the ban] but is concerned that the American company involved should properly understand the procedures and receive a fair opportunity to state their case.''
The spokesman said one meeting and later phone calls took place between late summer and fall, involving ``a number of consular staff,'' after an initial call from the company to intercede with Hong Kong. The State Department spokesman said that in mid-October the company was told that no protest could be lodged with Hong Kong on the ban because it was clearly a health bill, not a trade bill. However, the US consulate press spokesman acknowledges that no formal notification of this was given to the Hong Kong government.
Having tried unsuccessfully to use US legislative and diplomatic channels to stop the ban, US Tobacco then approached the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. Although US Chamber offices are not supposed to lobby for individual companies, the Hong Kong chamber wrote a letter to Secretary of Trade Eric Ho warning him that the ban ``would be excessive and discriminatory and contrary to free trade.''
In addition to these approaches, US Tobacco lobbied members of Hong Kong's legislative council, its executive council, various members of the health and trade ministries, and sent a petition to the governor asking that its product not be banned.
A Hong Kong government spokesman says there has been ``a lot of pressure..., exceptional protests'' from the company about what the colony considers a health, not a trade, measure. But a spokesman for US Tobacco denies the health argument, saying the questions about snuff are ``still unresolved.... Smokeless tobacco hasn't been scientifically proven [to be] the cause of any human disease, including oral cancer.''
The company sticks to its claim that the Hong Kong ban is solely a trade issue, and a spokesman says: ``Any ban aimed specifically at smokeless tobacco, while Hong Kong continues to allow the sale of all other tobacco products, we perceive as clearly a discriminatory restriction on international trade.''
A spokesman for the Smokeless Tobacco Council, the public relations arm of the business, concurs that the industry has been singled out: ``With $2.7 billion worth of exports in 1984, tobacco is an important segment of US foreign trade. The Smokeless Tobacco Council considers the Hong Kong ban to be a serious international trade issue.''
A spokesman for US Tobacco denies that it ever requested anyone to threaten retaliatory trade action.
In a letter to the Hong Kong government, US Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California (one of the authors of the Comprehensive Smokeless Tobacco Act of 1986, which mandated federal health warnings) said that ``the sale and use of smokeless tobacco represents a public health threat to any country which permits its sale.''
Next: The fight over snuff moves to other countries.